Gravel riding – what is it, which bike should you get and what should you wear?

February 14, 2024 7 min read

Gravel riding – what is it, which bike should you get and what should you wear?

 

By Andrew Barlow, author of Gravel Rides Lake District.

The world of cycling has evolved, and a new discipline has emerged, captivating riders with its allure of adventure, exploration, and rugged terrain. Gravel riding has rapidly gained popularity, offering a unique blend of road and off-road cycling experiences. As enthusiasts seek to break free from the confines of traditional road cycling, gravel riding provides the perfect escape into the unknown.

In this blog post, we'll delve into the fascinating realm of gravel riding, addressing fundamental questions and providing valuable insights for both beginners and seasoned cyclists. We'll explore the definition of a gravel bike, recommend top gravel bikes to consider, and offer essential guidance on what to wear for gravel riding. Whether you're a curious newcomer or a gravel veteran, this post aims to equip you with the knowledge and inspiration to embrace the gravel riding revolution.

Let's embark on this exhilarating journey and discover the allure of gravel riding, from the essential gear to the thrilling experiences that await on the unbeaten path.

What is a gravel bike?

Now this question has serval answers depending on who you ask. Gravel riding was born in the mid-west of the United States Of America. Road cyclists looking to get off roads by riding on long stretches of fire roads or ranch roads. Around 2010 we saw the 'gravel bike' make its way into the industry. Some say it was just a rebranded cross-bike which in my opinion is incorrect and here’s why.

Generally, what you shall see with a true gravel bike starting from the ground up you’ll have the option of a 700c or 650b wheelset depending on what type of riding style you’re after. 700c for the fast roll-ability of the wheel or 650b opting for more comfort and a plusher feel.

Generally a gravel rider will ride a tyre with starting around 42mm and then can be all the way up into 2.1 inch MTB tyres. Again this depends on the type of 'gravel' you’re wanting to ride. 

Gravel riding, also known as gravel biking or adventure cycling, has gained popularity in recent years as an exciting and challenging way to explore the great outdoors on two wheels. In essence, gravel riding involves cycling on unpaved roads, paths, and trails, typically made of gravel, dirt, and sometimes even rough terrain. This unique style of riding offers cyclists the opportunity to escape the hustle and bustle of city streets and explore remote and scenic landscapes that are often inaccessible by traditional road bikes.

Gravel riding is characterised by its blend of road and off-road cycling, offering a versatile and dynamic experience for riders of all levels. Whether you're a seasoned cyclist looking for a new challenge or a beginner seeking to expand your horizons, gravel riding provides an exhilarating mix of adventure, exploration, and physical exertion.

One of the defining features of gravel riding is the use of specialised bikes designed to handle a variety of terrains. Gravel bikes, often equipped with wider tires for improved traction and stability, are built to withstand the rigours of off-road riding while maintaining the speed and efficiency of a road bike. This versatility allows riders to tackle gravel roads, forest paths, and rugged trails with confidence and control.

Unlike traditional road cycling, where the focus is often on speed and distance, gravel riding emphasises the journey itself. Riders are encouraged to take their time, soak in the surroundings, and embrace the sense of freedom that comes with exploring uncharted territory. Gravel riding also fosters a spirit of adventure, as riders are often drawn to remote and less-travelled routes, seeking out hidden gems and natural beauty off the beaten path.

Moreover, gravel riding is a great way to connect with nature and experience the outdoors in a more intimate and immersive way. Whether it's the serenity of a forest trail, the majesty of a mountain pass, or the tranquility of a lakeside path, gravel riding allows cyclists to forge a deeper connection with the natural world and gain a newfound appreciation for their surroundings.

For many enthusiasts, gravel riding is not just a sport or a hobby – it's a lifestyle. It embodies a sense of camaraderie, exploration, and self-discovery that extends beyond the confines of traditional cycling. Gravel riding events, such as gravel races and group rides, bring together like-minded individuals who share a passion for adventure and a love of the outdoors, fostering a vibrant and inclusive community.

Which bikes would you recommend for gravel riding?

When it comes to recommending gravel bikes for riders, it's important to consider a range of factors, including individual preferences, riding style, budget, and terrain. Here are a few gravel bikes that have garnered positive reviews and are well-regarded within the cycling community: 

  1. **Specialised Diverge:** The Specialised Diverge is a popular choice among gravel riders, known for its versatility and performance. With features such as Future Shock technology for improved comfort over rough terrain, wide tire clearance, and stable handling, the Diverge is designed to excel on a variety of surfaces, making it a great option for riders who value all-around capability.
  1. **Canyon Grail:** The Canyon Grail has gained a strong following for its innovative design, including the distinctive double-decker handlebar, which provides added comfort and control. The Grail offers a smooth and stable ride, making it well-suited for long gravel adventures and rough terrain.
  1. **Trek Checkpoint:** The Trek Checkpoint is a well-rounded gravel bike that strikes a balance between performance and versatility. With the ability to accommodate both 700c and 650b wheels, as well as a range of mounting points for accessories, the Checkpoint is ideal for riders who enjoy long-distance exploration and bikepacking.
  1. **Salsa Cuthroat** The Salsa Cutthroat is a highly regarded gravel bike that has earned a strong reputation among riders who seek adventure, long-distance touring, and multi-terrain exploration. Launched as Salsa's purpose-built bike for the Tour Divide, a gruelling 2,745-mile self-supported mountain bike race along the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico, the Cutthroat is designed to excel in a variety of off-road conditions while maintaining efficiency on smoother surfaces.

Ultimately, the best gravel bike for an individual will depend on their specific needs and preferences. Factors such as frame material, tire clearance, gearing options, and accessory compatibility should be taken into account when making a recommendation. Additionally, test riding different models and consulting with knowledgeable staff at local bike shops can provide valuable insights for finding the perfect gravel bike to suit each rider's unique style and goals.

What should you wear for gravel riding?

When preparing for gravel riding, it's essential to wear clothing and gear that prioritise comfort, protection, and versatility. Gravel riding often involves a mix of on-road and off-road conditions, so your attire should be suited to handle a variety of terrains and weather conditions. Here are some recommendations for what to wear when gravel riding:

  1. **Helmet:** A properly fitting and well-ventilated cycling helmet is essential for safety. Look for a helmet designed for off-road or mixed-terrain riding, as it may offer additional coverage and impact protection.
  1. **Apparel:** Choose moisture-wicking, breathable cycling apparel that provides freedom of movement. Consider wearing padded cycling shorts or bib shorts for added comfort on long rides. A moisture-wicking jersey or base layer will help regulate body temperature and keep you dry.
  1. **Footwear:** Sturdy cycling shoes with a grippy outsole are recommended for gravel riding. You may opt for mountain bike shoes with recessed cleats, which allow for easier walking on rough terrain. Consider shoes with added protection around the toe and heel for off-road riding.
  1. **Gloves:** Cycling gloves with padding can help reduce hand fatigue and provide better grip, especially over bumpy terrain. Look for gloves with breathable materials and good dexterity.
  1. **Eyewear:** Sunglasses or clear lenses can protect your eyes from debris, glare, and insects. Consider eyewear with interchangeable lenses for different lighting conditions.
  1. **Weather Protection:** Depending on the climate and forecast, pack a lightweight, packable windproof and water-resistant cycling jacket to stay dry and comfortable in changing weather conditions.
  1. **Accessories:** Don't forget essentials like a comfortable and well-ventilated cycling cap, sweat-resistant sunscreen, and a hydration pack or water bottles for staying hydrated during long rides.
  1. **Visibility:** If riding in low-light conditions or at night, wear high-visibility or reflective clothing and consider attaching front and rear lights to your bike for added visibility to others.
  1. **Repair Kit:** Consider wearing a small saddlebag or frame bag to carry essentials like a spare tube, tire levers, a mini pump or CO2 inflator, and a multi-tool for on-the-go repairs.
  1. **Layering:** Dress in layers to adjust to changing temperatures throughout your ride. This allows you to regulate your body temperature as you warm up or cool down during the ride.

Remember that personal preferences, local climate, and the specific demands of your ride will influence your clothing choices. It's important to experiment with different apparel and gear to find what works best for your comfort and performance on gravel rides.

 

The versatility of gravel bikes and the diverse terrain they can handle make them a practical choice for cyclists seeking a multi-purpose machine. Whether it's tackling rough gravel roads, packed dirt, or even a bit of pavement, these bikes can do it all, making them an attractive option for those who want to diversify their cycling experiences.

Furthermore, the inclusive and supportive gravel riding community fosters a welcoming atmosphere, where riders can bond over their shared love for exploration and adventure. The growing number of gravel events and races around the world also provide opportunities for cyclists to challenge themselves and connect with like-minded individuals.

Ultimately, gravel riding represents a fusion of physical activity, nature appreciation, and camaraderie, making it a truly special and enriching pursuit for anyone looking to expand their horizons on two wheels. Whether you're a seasoned cyclist or a newcomer to the sport, gravel riding offers something truly unique and rewarding. So, grab your gravel bike, hit the open road, and embark on a journey that's as much about the experience as it is about the destination.